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J Michael Kearney

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A Letter From a Dying Man
by J Michael Kearney   

Last edited: Monday, January 27, 2003
Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2002

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A letter from a colleague stricken with cancer, puts things in perspective.

On January 13th, 2001 fire swept through a fourth floor apartment at 166th Street and Teller Avenue. Don Franklin of Ladder 44 in the South Bronx was killed at that fire. He was 42 years old. He left six children behind.

Don had the Roof position the night he died. The fire, apparently started by someone smoking in bed, killed the two elderly residents of that apartment immediately. After climbing an aerial ladder pitched at a 70 degree angle while carrying seventy-five pounds of gear and forcing open two bulkhead doors, clearing the skylights and cutting the roof with a gas powered partner saw, Don died of heart failure due to exertion just as the fire was being declared “under control.”

Don was Ladder 44’s “Marlboro man.” He was a big, bull of a man who worked two full-time jobs, fireman in the South Bronx and Crane Operator. Sixteen-hour days were his norm, high stress and sweat were his constant companions.

For the eleven months prior to that fire, our attentions had been on firefighter who’d “passed through” our firehouse on “the rotation” – all new recruits spend each of their first three years in a different Fire Company.

Angelo had just returned to his original firehouse after a year with Engine 92, the Engine Company that shares the firehouse with both Ladder 44 and the 17th Battalion.

In February of 2000, Angelo went to the doctor’s with what he thought was a pulled muscle in his neck. He was referred to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital for tests and subsequently diagnosed with various forms of cancer, from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, to Germ Cell cancer, and finally to stage 4 Prostate cancer, the most advanced stage.

He was the youngest patient ever diagnosed with Prostate cancer, at Sloan-Kettering, at just 34 years of age.

For eleven months both our firehouse and his home station in Queens followed Angelo’s up and down progress against this cancer. Both houses collected money to help with the mounting medical bills.

Angelo had five young children. Four days after Don’s death, a letter arrived at our firehouse:

Hi guys,

I used to ask “WHY,” all the time. “Why do bad things happen to good people? Why me? Why Don?

One day, while getting chemotherapy, I saw a small boy, maybe 8 or 9 years old awaiting some tests. He looked pale and weak and he had no hair. It was then that I realized just how lucky I am.

Here was a young boy, sick with this terrible disease and he was laughing and playing with a Gameboy.

Everyday since then, I’ve awakened happy! I look at my girls and watch them laugh...that’s what it’s all about – smiling, laughing, enjoying every minute to the max. So what about the traffic...who cares about the Contract?

I know many of you don’t feel that lucky right now, but YOU ARE. You have each other. You have your families. You have your health (some of you have your hair).

Please learn to enjoy it all. Like the saying goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

We have the greatest job in the world.

They actually pay us to do this stuff.

More than anything please appreciate what you have while you have it!

Don and Linda were truly happy – that’s great! Appreciate what you have. I know I never did. You can bet your ass I do now.

Love your wife and kids a little more. Give out more hugs. Laugh your balls off at least once a day. I guarantee you’ll feel better.

I cannot say how much I appreciate what you’ve done for Joanne and I. It’s time to take care of Donnie’s family now. I’m proud to say that I worked on Morris Avenue and that I worked with someone like Don Franklin.

You are truly the best of the best.

Soldiers in a war that never ends.

May God bless and keep you.



I pass that letter every time I enter our firehouse kitchen now. Angelo pretty much summed up a good life in about three hundred words. We never really expected Angelo to ever come back to full duty, we just hoped against hope that he survived to raise his family.

Sadly, even that was not to be. Angelo succumbed to cancer on August 2nd, 2001.

So that letter still hangs in our kitchen as the rest of us just keep doing what we’ve always done – dropping everything at the sound of the bells and responding to fires and emergencies.

Angelo’s letter is a good reminder for us to appreciate what we have while we have it, because it certainly doesn’t last very long. It’s also a good reminder that too many of us constantly complain about venal, petty things – other people having “too much money,” or someone else being “too religious...too Left wing...too Right wing.”

Who cares?

The key is to stay focused on improving ourselves and to appreciate what we have. Whatever amount of time we’ll need to improve ourselves, we can be pretty sure that we won’t have enough – life’s too short.

Just ask Angelo.


© August, 2001 J Michael Kearney

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Reviewed by m j hollingshead 3/4/2005
poignant read
Reviewed by Julie Donner Andersen 7/9/2003
My husband's first wife died of cancer, and while that was a tragedy, what he learned from her death made him a better person. He, liek ANgelo, lives each day to the fullest, loves a little more and a lot deeper, and never lets a day go by without making a difference.

Wonderful article, J. Michael. It was written well and moved me to tears. Thank you.
Reviewed by Cathrene Howe 3/13/2003
This write gave me goosebumps.
Well said.

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